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Are Elections Imperiling Our Democracy?

Every Election Day, politicians sporting flag pins step into voting booths and come out proclaiming their pride in the democratic process. But take a step back and things don’t look so rosy. Between badly run elections and a new wave of “dark money” entering campaigns, reformers fear that the very nature of our democracy is at risk.


There is a paradox at the heart of the American electoral system. The 2014 general election was the most costly midterm vote in United States history. Yet the nearly $4 billion spent by campaigns and outside groups resulted in the lowest voting percentage since the height of World War II.

A patchwork of state and local laws and customs has created a system that tends to break down in small ways in most years and spectacularly in others. For example, in 2014, problems in Hartford, Connecticut, on Election Day resulted in confusion and long waits; eventually a judge ordered polling places kept open past the closing time. An investigation attributed the mess to “errors or omissions by certain Hartford election officials, a dysfunctional working relationship among all the officials, a lack of leadership, and the lack of a clear chain of command.” It wasn’t as consequential as the problems in Florida in 2000, but Hartford also wasn’t alone. Voting machines in Virginia registered votes intended for one candidate for his opponent; the website where voters could find their polling places in Georgia crashed; and in Chicago, more than 2,000 election judges failed to show at polling places after receiving automated phone calls falsely saying they weren’t qualified.

Election snafus are nothing new for the U.S. Elections have been imperfect affairs since the birth of the republic. But what is new is how campaigns are being funded. The Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in the Citizens United case gutted campaign finance regulations, unleashing a flood of what’s come to be called “dark money.” Spending by outside groups in off-year elections has nearly doubled since the ruling. While proponents of unrestricted spending frame the issue as one of free speech, those opposed argue that allowing wealthy individuals and corporations to donate as much money as they please—and do so without disclosing their identities—threatens democracy itself. One pundit referred to the current situation as the return of “Watergate-style political money to U.S. elections.”

Heather Gerken, the J. Skelly Wright Professor of Law at Yale Law School, studies elections and has designed reforms focused on how elections are run and paid for. In an interview with Yale Insights, she said that elections have not become better run since the controversial 2000 and 2004 votes, and that dark money threatens to make things worse. A big reason, she said, is that the people writing those anonymous checks expect something in return. “It’s not just affecting what happens on Election Day,” she said. “It affects everything that happens after.”  

Gerken has proposed modest reforms in each area, reasoning that small efforts toward transparency are more achievable than large-scale change. Based on one proposal, the Pew Charitable Trusts has established an Election Performance Index to provide a ranking of each state’s ability to adequately conduct elections. A second proposal, to require that ads state when they are funded by undisclosed donors, requires an act of Congress—and has gone nowhere.

Gerken is more hopeful today about the prospects for improving election performance than she is about how campaigns are funded. And funding, she admits, is probably the much bigger deal. “Unless we fix the problems that relate to money,” she said, “we’re not going to be able to govern ourselves going forward.”

J. Skelly Wright Professor of Law, Yale Law School